Resting on the edge of the Arctic Circle and sitting atop one of the world’s most volcanically active hot spots, Iceland is an inspiring mix of magisterial glaciers, bubbling hot springs and rugged fjords, where activities such as hiking under the Midnight Sun are complemented by healthy doses of history and literature. The modern and cosmopolitan capital, Reykjavík, may be small but has a lively atmosphere more than capable of keeping you entertained when you travel to Iceland.
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Landscapes in Iceland
Iceland is a place where nature reigns supreme. Aside from Reykjavík, population centres are small, with diminutive towns, fishing villages, farms and minute hamlets clustered along the coastal fringes. The Interior, meanwhile, remains totally uninhabited and unmarked by humanity: a starkly beautiful wilderness of ice fields, windswept upland plateaux, infertile lava and ash deserts and the frigid vastness of Vatnajökull, Europe’s largest glacier.
Iceland’s location on the Mid-Atlantic ridge also gives it one of the most volcanically active landscapes on Earth, peppered with everything from naturally occurring hot springs, scaldingly hot bubbling mud pools and noisy steam vents to a string of unpredictably violent volcanoes, which have regularly devastated huge parts of the country. The latest events came in 2010, when Eyjafjallajökull erupted and caused havoc across Europe; and in 2015, when the eruption at Holuhraun created a huge new lavafield.
- Though geographically as big as England, Iceland’s population is tiny – it’s no bigger than many towns in other countries. Most Icelanders live in and around the capital, Reykjavík.
- Iceland sits atop the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, the fault line where two of the Earth’s tectonic plates are slowly drifting apart; as a result, Iceland is getting wider at a rate of roughly 1cm per year. Either side of this ridge, from the northeast to the southwest, earthquakes and volcanic activity are commonplace.
- There are no motorways or railways in Iceland. The country’s only main road, the Ringroad which circumnavigates the island, was completed in the 1970s following several unsuccessful attempts to bridge treacherous glacial rivers on the south coast.
- Iceland is home to the third-biggest glacier in the world, Vatnajökull, covering an area equal to that of the English county of Yorkshire. One of the country’s greatest sources of geothermal energy, the Grímsvötn caldera, sits directly beneath the ice cap.
- Thanks to the existence of countless medieval documents, many Icelanders can trace their ancestors back to the time of the Viking settlement, around 800 AD. Low immigration over the centuries means that today’s Icelanders have one of the purest gene pools in the world, providing an invaluable research opportunity for scientists.
Iceland’s Keflavík International Airport, about 40km west of Reykjavík, is connected by an ever-increasing quantity of flights to Europe, the UK, Scandinavia, the US and Canada. It’s also possible to reach Iceland year-round by sea via the Faroese superferry Norröna, which performs a regular crossing of the North Atlantic.
Airfares always depend on the season, with the highest being around June to August, when the weather is best; fares drop during the “shoulder” seasons – September to November and April to June – and you’ll get the best prices during the low season, November to March (excluding Christmas and New Year).
An all-inclusive package tour can sometimes turn out to be the cheapest way of doing things. Deals range from a weekend city-break to Reykjavík and its surrounds to all-singing, all-dancing adventure holidays involving snowmobiling across Vatnajökull and whale watching in Húsavík. Check the specialist tour operator websites.
The cheapest airfare deals are always available online, either direct through the airline website or via a discount travel website.
Flights from the UK and Ireland
Icelandair flies daily to Keflavík from London Heathrow, Birmingham, Manchester and Glasgow.
WOW air has now ceased operations, so present from Ireland you’ll need to travel via mainland Britain with Aer Lingus or discount masters Ryanair, and then pick up a connecting flight to Keflavík.
Flights from the US and Canada
Icelandair flies out of many cities across the US and Canada. The frequency – and cost – of flights is reduced during the winter months; schedules change each year, depending on demand, and some routes are suspended altogether.
Flights from Australia and New Zealand
There are no direct flights to Iceland from Australia, New Zealand or South Africa, so you’ll need to find a discounted airfare to somewhere that does – such as London – and arrange a flight to Reykjavík from there.
All return airfares to London from Australian East-Coast gateways are similarly priced, with the cheapest deals via Asia costing. From Perth or Darwin, scheduled flights via Asia cost less than if departing from eastern gateways, while flights via the US cost more. From New Zealand you can fly from Auckland to London via mainland US or Asia.
The Norröna ferry
Although it’s possible to travel by sea to Iceland aboard the luxurious Norröna ferry (w smyril-line.com), the journey is recommended only to those with a cast-iron stomach – the gales, storms and colossal swell of the North Atlantic will quash any romantic images of following the Vikings’ sea-road. One huge advantage, however, is that you can bring your own vehicle into Iceland this way.
The ferry departs once a week, year-round, from Hirtshals in Denmark, travelling via Tórshavn in the Faroe Islands to Seyðisfjörður, in Iceland’s East Fjords. Facilities include en-suite cabins, a swimming pool, a shopping arcade and even a fitness centre.
High season (mid-June through to late August) one-way fares from Denmark to Seyðisfjörður are €427 per person for one vehicle and two people sleeping in a couchette; a private cabin costs €574 per person.
Every settlement in Iceland has somewhere to stay in the shape of a hotel, guesthouse, hostel or campsite, with farms and some rural schools providing accommodation in between. Almost all formal lodgings are found around the settled coastal band; if you’re heading into the wilds at any stage, you’ll need to camp or make use of hiking huts.
Always book accommodation in advance. Tourism to Iceland has rocketed in recent years and during the peak season (June–Aug) the industry can struggle to cope with demand. The only exceptions are campsites which – aside from Reykjavík’s – don’t usually require advance reservations.
City hotels tend to stay open year-round, and though the habit is spreading to smaller settlements, many places still shut down in winter, or at least through December. Where accommodation does stay open, winter rates are cheaper than summer ones.
Budget accommodation options in Iceland include made-up beds (with linen supplied) and even cheaper sleeping-bag accommodation (where you bring your own bag). In both cases you’re paying for a bed in a dorm or shared room for less than the price of a single room. So, even if you don’t intend to camp, consider bringing a sleeping bag to Iceland.
It’s worth picking up the Áning and Icelandic Farm Holiday booklets from tourist information outlets, which between them cover the majority of accommodation and campsite options across the country.
Icelandic hotels are typically elderly and gloomy or bland, modern, business-oriented blocks, though rooms are comfortable and well furnished as a rule. Bigger establishments might have their own pool, gym or sauna, and there will always be a restaurant, with breakfast included in the cost of a room.
A few country schools open up during the summer holidays as hotels, twelve of which come under the Edda banner. They’re aimed at the mid-range end of things, though a few also provide sleeping-bag accommodation with shared facilities. Most have a thermally heated pool in the grounds and there’s always a restaurant.
Guesthouses (gistiheimilið) tend to have more character than hotels, and they’re often family-run. Rooms range from the barely furnished to the very comfortable, though facilities are usually shared, and you’ll often find some budget accommodation available too. A breakfast of cereal, toast, cheese and coffee is included, or offered for an extra fee; some places can provide all meals with advance notice.
You’ll find plenty of farms in Iceland (some with histories going back to saga times) which offer accommodation of some kind, ranging from a room in the farmhouse to hostel-style dormitories or fully furnished, self-contained cabins. Many also encourage guests to take part in the daily routine, or offer horseriding, fishing, guided tours or even four-wheel-drive safaris.
For the most part, farm prices are the same as for guesthouses; cabins sleeping four or more can work out a good deal for a group. Come prepared to cook for yourself, though meals are usually available if booked in advance.
Hostelling International Iceland runs 33 hostels, ranging from big affairs in Reykjavík to old farmhouses sleeping four out in the wilds. All are owner-operated, have self-catering kitchens and either offer bookings for local tours or organize them themselves. Some provide meals with advance notice and have laundry facilities. Many open all year too, though you’d be hard-pushed to reach remoter ones until winter is well and truly over – turn up out of season, however, and you’ll often receive a warm welcome.
Dormitory sleeping-bag accommodation is the norm, though doubles are sometimes offered.
Holders of a Hostelling International membership card can often get a discount – you can buy cards at Icelandic hostels or from hostelling associations in your own country.
Camping is a great way to experience Iceland, especially during the light summer nights, when it’s bright enough in your tent at midnight to feel like it’s time to get up. You’ll also minimize expenditure, whether you make use of the country’s hundreds of campsites or set up for free in the nearest field.
Official campsites are only open between June and some point in September – though you’re welcome to use them out of season if you can live without their facilities (just shower at the nearest pool). They vary from no-frills affairs with level ground, a toilet and cold running water to those sporting windbreaks, hot showers (always for an extra fee), laundry and sheltered kitchen areas. Electricity for motorhomes can also be added for an extra fee. On-site shops or cafés are unusual, so stock up in advance. Campsites in the Interior are very barely furnished, usually with just a pit toilet.
While a few campsites are free, you will normally have to pay to stay at them. If you plan to spend every night in a tent, a Camping Card might save some money.
If you’re doing extensive hiking or cycling there will be times that you’ll have to camp in the wild. The main challenge here is to find a flat, rock-free space to pitch a tent. Where feasible, always seek permission for this at the nearest farmhouse before setting up; farmers often don’t mind – and might direct you to a good site – but may need to keep you away from pregnant stock or the like.
Note, however, that after years of having to repair damaged verges and tidy up campers’ garbage, toilet paper and raw sewage, some understandably irate landowners have erected “No Camping” signs on their properties. When camping wild, you must bury anything biodegradable and carry all other rubbish out with you. It’s also forbidden to camp in reserves and at many popular tourist destinations, except at designated areas.
Your tent is going to be severely tested, so needs to be in a good state of repair and built to withstand strong winds and heavy rain – bring along a good-quality dome or tunnel design, with a space between the flysheet and the tent entrance where you can store your backpack and boots out of the weather. Whatever the conditions are when you set up, always use guy ropes, the maximum number of pegs and a flysheet, as the weather can change rapidly; in some places, especially in the Interior, it’s also advisable to weight the pegs down with rocks.
Also invest in a decent sleeping bag – even in summer, you might have to cope with sub-zero conditions – and a sleeping mat for insulation and comfort. A waterproof sheet to put underneath your tent is also a good idea. Unless you find supplies of driftwood you’ll need a fuel stove too, as Iceland’s few trees are all protected. Butane gas canisters are sold in Reykjavík and at many fuel stations around the country, but you’re possibly better off with a pressure stove capable of taking a variety of fuels such as unleaded petrol (býlaust) or kerosene (steinolía). White gas/Coleman Fuel, a naptha-based product recommended by several pressure stove manufacturers, is increasingly available; don’t confuse it with the widely available thinner, white spirit/shellite.
As for food, never buy purpose-made freeze-dried stuff from Reykajvík’s specialist camping stores – most brands are expensive and barely palatable even when you’re too exhausted to care after a hard day’s hike. Normal boil/microwave-in-the-bag meals from the nearest supermarket are far cheaper and can’t taste any worse.
At popular hiking areas and throughout interior Iceland you’ll encounter mountain huts, which are maintained by Iceland’s hiking organizations. These can be lavish, multistorey lodges with kitchen areas and dormitories overseen by wardens, or very basic wooden bunkhouses that simply offer a dry retreat from the weather. You’ll always have to supply bedding and food and should book well in advance through the relevant organization, particularly at popular sites such as Þórsmörk and Landmannalaugar. If you haven’t booked – or can’t produce a receipt to prove it – you may get in if there’s room, but otherwise you’ll have to pitch a tent; wardens are very strict about this, so if you don’t have a tent to fall back on, you might find yourself having to hike to the next available hut late in the day.
Emergency huts, painted bright orange to show up against snow, are sometimes not so remote – you’ll see them at a few places around the Ringroad where drivers might get stranded by sudden heavy snowfalls. Stocked with food and fuel, and run by the SVFÍ (Iceland’s national life-saving association), these huts are for emergency use only; if you have to use one, fill out the guestbook stating what you used and where you were heading, so that stocks can be maintained and rescue crews will know to track you down if you don’t arrive at your destination.
Iceland’s main daily papers are the right-wing Morgunblaðið and the right-of-centre Fréttablaðið, available all over the country and giving thorough coverage of national and international news.
If your Icelandic isn’t up to it, there are roundups of the domestic news on Morgunblaðið’s English-language website and the Iceland Review. Reykjavík’s bookshops – and libraries around the country – also have copies of British and US newspapers, plus international magazines such as Time and National Geographic.
Iceland’s radio stations play a mind-numbingly repetitive menu of commercial pop, classical music and talk-back shows. The three television channels show a familiar mix of soaps, dramas, films and documentaries. All these media are predominantly Icelandic-language only, though films and TV shows are screened in their original language with subtitles.
Though Iceland’s calendar is essentially Christian, many official holidays and festivals have a secular theme, and at least one dates from pagan times. Some are already familiar: Christmas and Easter Monday are both holidays in Iceland and are celebrated as elsewhere in the Western world, as is New Year.
Harking back to the Viking era, however, Þorrablót is a midwinter celebration that originally honoured the weather god Þorri, and became something to look forward to during the bleakest time of the year. It is held throughout February, when people throw parties centred around the consumption of traditional foods such as svið and hákarl, with some restaurants also laying on special menus.
Sjomannadagur, or Seamen’s Day (June 4), unsurprisingly, is one of the biggest holidays of the year, with communities organizing mock sea-rescue demonstrations, swimming races and tug-of-war events. This is followed by another break for Independence Day (June 17), the day that the Icelandic state separated from Denmark in 1944.
Although not an official holiday, Jónsmessa, on June 24, is the day that elves and other magical creatures are said to be out in force, playing tricks on the unwary; some people celebrate with a big bonfire, and it’s also meant to be good for your health to run around naked.
Verslunnarmannahelgi, the Labour Day Weekend, takes place around the country on the first weekend in August. Traditionally, everybody heads into the countryside, sets up camp, and spends the rest of the holiday drinking and partying themselves into oblivion. On Heimaey in the Westman Islands, Þjódhátið is held on the same day and celebrated in the same way – there’s live music, too, and a huge bonfire – though it nominally commemorates Iceland’s achieving partial political autonomy in 1874.
One event to look out for, though it’s not a single festival, is the annual stock round-up, or rettir, which takes place in rural areas throughout September. This is when horses and sheep are herded by riders on horseback down from the higher summer pastures to be penned and sorted; some farms offering accommodation allow guests to watch or even participate.
Sports and outdoor activities
Iceland has its own wrestling style, called glíma – a former Olympic sport where opponents try to throw each other by grabbing one another’s belts – and there’s a serious football (soccer) following; the Reykjavík Football Club was founded in 1899, and an Icelandic consortium owned the English-league club Stoke City between 1999 and 2006. Otherwise, there’s not a great obsession with sport, and most people here go outside not to play games but to work or enjoy the Great Outdoors.
The lava plains, black-sand deserts, glacier-capped plateaux, alpine meadows, convoluted fjords and capricious volcanoes that make Iceland such an extraordinary place scenery-wise also offer tremendous potential for outdoor activities, whether you’ve come for wildlife or to hike, ride, ski, snowmobile or four-wheel-drive your way across the horizon. Further information on these activities is always at hand in local tourist offices, while you can find out more about the few national parks and reserves from the Department of Forestry or various Icelandic hiking organizations. Many activities can be undertaken as part of an organized tour, sometimes with the necessary gear supplied or available for rent. Before you set out to do anything too adventurous, however, check your insurance cover.
Swimming and hot pots
You probably won’t be coming to Iceland to swim, but in fact this is a major year-round social activity with Icelanders. Just about every settlement has a swimming pool, usually an outdoor affair and heated by the nearest hot spring to around 28˚C. There are also almost always one or two spa baths or hot pots, providing much hotter soaks at 35–40˚C – another great Icelandic institution, and particularly fun in winter, when you can sit up to your neck in near-scalding water while the snow falls thickly around you. Out in the wilds, hot pots are replaced by natural hot springs – a welcome way to relax trail-weary muscles.
Icelandic swimming pools have their own etiquette that you need to follow. Remove your shoes before entering the changing rooms (there will be a rack in the pool lobby); leave your towel in the shower area between the changing rooms and the pool, not in your locker (this is so you can towel off before returning to the changing rooms, keeping them dry); and shower fully, with soap and without swimwear, before getting in the pool. Note that though there are always separate male and female changing rooms, very few pools have private cubicles.
As Iceland is surrounded by the richest fishing grounds in the North Atlantic, sea fishing has always been seen as more of a career than a sport. The country’s rivers and lakes, however, are also well stocked with salmon and trout, pulling in hordes of fly fishers during the fishing season (April 1 to September 20 for trout; June 20 to mid-September for salmon). Both fish are plentiful in all the country’s bigger waterways, though the finest salmon are said to come from the Laxá in northeast Iceland, and the Rangá in the south. During the winter, people cut holes in the ice and fish for arctic char; the best spots for this are at Þingvallavatn and Mývatn.
You always need a permit to fish. Those for char or trout are fairly cheap and easy to obtain on the spot from local tourist offices and some accommodation, but permits for salmon are extremely expensive and often need to be reserved a year in advance, as there is a limit per river. For further information, contact the Federation of Icelandic River Owners, whose website has a huge amount of English-language information.
Hiking gets you closer to the scenery than anything else in Iceland. In reserves and the couple of national parks you’ll find a few marked trails, though even here guideposts tend to be erratic and you’ll always need to be competent at using navigational aids, especially in poor weather.
However long you’re hiking for, always carry warm, weatherproof clothing, food and water (there are plenty of places where porous soil makes finding surface water unlikely), as well as a torch, lighter, penknife, first aid kit, a foil insulation blanket and a whistle or mirror for attracting attention. The country is carpeted in sharp rocks and rough ground, so good-quality, tough hiking boots are essential – though a pair of neoprene surf boots with thick soles are useful to ford rivers.
On lava, watch out for volcanic fissures, cracks in the ground ranging from a few centimetres to several metres across. These are easy enough to avoid when you can see them, but blanketed by snow they’ll be invisible, so use a hiking pole to test the path ahead. Another hazard is river crossings, which you’ll have to make on various trails all over the country. Glacier-fed rivers are at their lowest first thing in the morning, and rise through the day as the sun melts the ice and snow that feed into them. When looking for a crossing point, remember the river will be shallowest at its widest point; before crossing, make sure that your backpack straps are loose so that you can ditch it in a hurry if necessary. Face into the current as you cross and be prepared to give up if the water gets above your thighs. Never attempt a crossing alone, and remember that some rivers have no safe fords at all if you’re on foot – you’ll have to hitch across in a vehicle.
When and where to hike
The best months for hiking are June through to August, when the weather is relatively warm, flowers are in bloom, and the wildlife is out and about – though even then the Interior and higher ground elsewhere can get snowbound at short notice. Outside the prime time, weather is very problematic and you might not be able to reach the area you want to explore, let alone hike around it.
One of the beauties of Iceland is that you can walk just about anywhere, assuming you can cope with local conditions, though there are, of course, highlights. Close to Reykjavík, the Reykjanes Peninsula offers extended treks across imposingly desolate lava rubble; there are some short, easy hikes along steaming valleys near Hveragerði, while trails at Þingvellir include historic sites and an introduction to rift valley geology. Further east, Laugavegur is an exceptional four-day trail; and Þórsmörk is one of the most popular hiking spots in the country, a wooded, elevated valley surrounded by glaciers and mountain peaks with a well-trodden network of paths.
Along the west coast, the Snæfellsnes Peninsula is notoriously damp but peaks with the ice-bound summit of Snæfellsjökull, the dormant volcano used as a fictional gateway into the centre of the earth by writer Jules Verne. Further north there’s Hornstrandir, the wildest and most isolated extremity of the West Fjords, a region of twisted coastlines, sheer cliffs and rugged hill walks. Those after an easier time should head to Mývatn, the shallow northeastern lake where you can make simple day-hikes to extinct craters, billowing mud-pits, and still steaming lava flows; longer but also relatively easy are the well-marked riverside trails around nearby Jökulsárgljúfur National Park, which features some awesome canyon scenery. Over in the east, the best of the hikes take in the highland moors and glaciated fringes of the massive Vatnajökull ice cap: at Snæfell, a peak inland from Egilsstaðir; Lónsöræfi reserve near Höfn; and Skaftafell National Park, another popular camping spot on Vatnajökull’s southern edge.
Horses came to Iceland with the first settlers, and, due to a tenth-century ban on their further import, have remained true to their original stocky Scandinavian breed. Always used for riding, horses also had a religious place in Viking times and were often dedicated or sacrificed to the pagan gods; with the advent of Christianity, eating horse meat was banned, being seen as a sign of paganism. Nowadays, horses are used for the autumn livestock round-up, and for recreational purposes.
Icelandic horses are sturdy, even-tempered creatures which, in addition to the usual walk, trot, gallop and canter, can move smoothly across rough ground using the gliding tölt gait. The biggest breeding centres are in the country’s south, but horses are available for hire from farms all over Iceland, for anything from an hour in the saddle to two-week-long treks across the Interior. To organize something in advance, contact Íshestar or Eldhestar, which run treks of all lengths and experience levels right across the country.
Snow and action sports
Snow sports – which in Iceland are not just practised in winter – have, surprisingly, only recently begun to catch on. Partly this is because the bulk of Iceland’s population lives in the mild southwestern corner of the country, but also because snow was seen as just something you had to put up with; cross-country skiing, for instance, is such a fact of life in the northeastern winters that locals refer to it simply as “walking”, and were baffled when foreign tour operators first brought in groups to do it for fun.
The possibilities for cross-country skiing are pretty limitless in winter, though you’ll have to bring in your own gear. Downhill skiing and snowboarding are the most popular snow sports, with winter slopes at Bláfjöll only 20km from Reykjavík.
Plenty of tour operators offer glacier trips on snowmobiles or skidoos, which are like jet-skis for snow – the only way for the inexperienced to get a taste of Iceland’s massive ice fields, and huge fun. Several of southwestern Iceland’s larger rivers have caught the attention of whitewater rafting enthusiasts, while Iceland also has surprisingly good scuba diving potential, the prime sites being in Þingvallavatn’s cool but amazingly clear waters, at various shipwrecks, and at seal colonies around the coast: Dive Iceland can sort out the details, though you’ll need dry-suit skills.
Hiking trails in Iceland are not formally graded, though local organizations sometimes use a boot icon to indicate difficulty (one boot easy, five boots tough). It’s always prudent to seek local advice about routes, but note that Icelanders, hardened since birth to the country’s conditions, tend to make light of difficulties: a “straightforward” trail often means anything that doesn’t actually involve technical skills and climbing gear, but might well include traversing knife-edge ridges or dangerously loose scree slopes.
Awareness of Iceland’s natural hazards – including the weather and geology – is taken very much for granted; don’t expect to find warning signs, safety barriers or guide ropes at even patently dangerous locations on the edge of waterfalls, volcanoes or boiling mud pits. Always exercise caution, especially at heavily touristed locations – where you’ll often see locals (and uninformed tourists) taking insane risks.
Where to go in Iceland
Reykjavík and the Golden Circle
Inevitably, most people get their first taste of Iceland at Reykjavík, rubbing shoulders with over half the country’s population. It may be small, but what Reykjavík lacks in size it more than makes up for in stylish bars, restaurants and shops, and the nightlife is every bit as wild as it’s cracked up to be: during the light summer nights, the city barely sleeps. Reykjavík also makes a good base for visiting the Golden Circle: Geysir, the original geyser, the ancient parliament site of Þingvellir and spectacular waterfalls at Gullfoss. You can also easily access the famous and sublime Blue Lagoon.
Beyond Reykjavík, Route 1, the Ringroad, runs out to encircle the island, and the wilder side of Iceland soon shows itself – open spaces of vivid green edged by unspoiled coastlines of red and black sands, all set against a backdrop of brooding hills and mountains.
The west coast is dominated by the towns of Borgarnes and Reykholt, both strongly associated with the sagas, while the Snæfellsnes Peninsula, with views of the monster glacier at its tip, is one of the country’s most accessible hiking destinations. Arguably Iceland’s most dramatic scenery is found in the far northwest of the country, the West Fjords, where tiny fishing villages nestle at the foot of table-top mountains. Ísafjörður is the only settlement of any size here and makes a good base from which to strike out on foot into the wilderness of the Hornstrandir Peninsula.
Beautifully located on the north coast, Akureyri is rightfully known as the capital of the north and functions as Iceland’s second city. With a string of bars and restaurants, it can make a refreshing change from the small villages hereabouts. From Akureyri it’s easy to reach the island of Grímsey, the only part of Icelandic territory actually within the Arctic Circle; and Lake Mývatn. The lake is a favourite nesting place for many species of duck and other waterfowl and is surrounded by an electrifying proliferation of volcanic activity. Nearby Húsavík is one of the best places in the country to organize summer whale-watching cruises, while just inland, the wilds of Jökulsárgljúfur National Park offer superlative hiking along deep river gorges to the spectacular Dettifoss, Europe’s most powerful waterfall.
Then there are the East Fjords which, despite easy access, remain the least touristed part of Iceland, perhaps because there are no major sights – just plenty of calm, quiet, grand scenery.
South of here, Höfn is a good base from which to visit Europe’s biggest glacier, the mighty Vatnajökull, either on a skidoo trip or on foot through Skaftafell National Park, while the Jökulsárlón glacial lagoon offers the surreal chance to cruise alongside floating icebergs.
The south coast is marked by vast stretches of black, volcanic coastal sands punctuated by charming villages such as Vík, Iceland’s southernmost settlement. Inland are more mighty waterfalls, including Skógarfoss and Seljalandsfoss; the wilderness surrounding Hekla, a highly active volcano which last erupted in 2000; at least one thermal outdoor pool to soak in; and a landscape central to Njál’s Saga, one of the nation’s great, visceral Viking romances. Iceland’s most rewarding hiking route can also be found here: the five-day Laugavegur trail between extraordinary hot-springs scenery at Landmannalaugar and the beautiful highland valley of Þórsmörk. Just a quick ferry ride offshore from all this lies Heimaey, at the heart of the the Westman Islands, which hosts one of the the world’s largest puffin colonies – and carries evidence of a catastrophic eruption during the 1970s which almost saw the island abandoned.
Iceland’s barren Interior is best tackled as part of a guided tour – it’s much easier to let experienced drivers of all-terrain buses pick their way across lavafields and cross unbridged rivers than to try it yourself.
Icelandic people power
Every Saturday between mid-October 2008 and late January 2009, thousands of Icelanders gathered in Austurvöllur square to voice their anger over the collapse of the Icelandic banking system which, it’s estimated, left one in five families bankrupt. The protesters began by burning the flag of Landsbanki, though soon also called for heads to roll. The main target of popular discontent was the leader of the Icelandic Central Bank and former long-serving politician, Davið Oddsson, who was squarely blamed for the economic collapse. The demonstrators became more vocal as the lack of decisive action by the government continued. Three and a half months of protests, in Austurvöllur and at various locations around the country, finally convinced Prime Minister Geir Haarde that his administration had no future; to national jubilation, it fell on January 26, 2009. However in 2012 a special court found Haarde not guilty of negligence over the economic meltdown, accusing him merely of failing to hold cabinet meetings when things turned critical. Equally exonerated, Davið Oddsson is today editor of the country’s biggest newspaper, Morgunblaðið.
Best time to visit Iceland
Keep in mind that the island is in the North Atlantic, so temperatures are often quite chilly. The best times to visit are often during the summer months of July and August when the weather is a little warmer. February, March, September and October are ideal times to visit if you wish to tick the Northern lights from your bucket list as the chances are much higher in the colder months.
Itinerary for when you travel Iceland
Thanks to the modest size of Iceland and it's looped roads, travelling around is relatively easy. The picturesque hot-spots of the country can be travelled in a short 4 - 5 days or alternatively, a stretched out road trip for 10 days is relaxed and enjoyable. If you are short on time, a 3 - 4 day intinerary is easily possible and makes for a fun mini-adventure. Below is a classic route for first-time travellers, although you can also check out our tailor-made trips!
Days 1 - 2: The Golden Circle
The Golden Circle is a charming route that consists of roughly 250 km, from Reyjavik to central Iceland and back again, whilst stopping off at the most popular tourist spots. The road is easy to explore and offers scenic views.
Days 2 -3: South Island
The South Island makes it easy to see how Iceland got its nickname as the land of fire and ice, with Volcanoes and black sand beaches in one destination, and icy glaciers in the next. Here you can walk behind the waterfall, Seljalandsfoss, and climb the 11 km Solheimajokull Glacier. Keep an eye out for Puffins, the islands happy little residents that have become quite famous.
Days 3 - 4: Reykjavik and Blue Lagoon
The sleepy capital of Reykjavik is a sweet little spot for trendy cafes and a great opportunity to learn about some of Iceland's history. Make your way to the top of the Hallgrimskirkja, a parish church that offers pretty views of the colourful houses that make up the capital city. Head to the Settlement Exhibition after, where you will learn all about the Vikings, the very first fearsome settlers on this scenic island, through archaeological excavation.
The blue lagoon is often the highlight of visiting Iceland and is one of the top places to visit on your trip. Perfect for some leisure time and relaxation, the warm waters contain silica, algae and minerals known for their healing powers. The geothermal spa has accommodation and a restaurant, with packages available to get yourself a good deal. The day pass is 54€ and gives you access to the lagoon, showers and sauna as well as a complimentary drink and silicia mud mask.
Food and drink in Iceland
Food and drink in Iceland range from the usual well-known dishes to the full-blown bizarre. Fermented Shark is a delicacy known locally as Hakarl, and although it is not the most appealing to the taste buds, it is a must-try as a tourist in the country. If you wish to play it a little safer, Lamb is the favoured meat in Iceland, particularly roasted. You can also try smoked sheep head if you are feeling adventurous and want to eat like a Viking. Skyr, a dairy product made from cheese in a yoghurt form, has been fed to hungry tummiesfor thousands of years. It makes a nice dessert when topped with berries.
Drink-wise, Brennivin is the Icelandic local spirit that is similar in taste to Vodka, famous with locals during the Porrablot Winter Festival.
Top image: Beautiful view of Vik village - Iceland © Nido Huebl/Shutterstock